Friday, January 17, 2014

I wish I'd said that: Geary's awesome aphorisms

“One can hardly imagine the riches contained in this anthology.”— Jay Parini, The Chronicle of Higher Education

James Geary, the compiler of Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists, told NPR that he has five laws in defining the oldest and the shortest literary art form on earth: "It must be brief. It must be definitive. It must be personal — that's the difference between an aphorism and a proverb. It must be philosophical — that's the difference between an aphorism and a platitude, which is not philosophical. And the fifth law is it must have a twist. And that can be either a linguistic twist or a psychological twist or even a twist in logic that somehow flips the reader into a totally unexpected place."
I have the greatest admiration for the labor and perspicacity that went into this collection. It's the best of its type that I've ever seen. I'm about one-third of the way through, and I look forward to lots more delving. There are so many fascinating people I've never heard of, particularly Eastern bloc dissidents. Their inspiring stories and their brilliant use of language to subvert oppression deserve a pride of place in a collection that honors the best minds from every continent and century. Particularly delicious are the pages and pages of bon mots and maxims produced by the literary relationship between Mme de Sablé and La Rochfoucauld, both of whom are pictured above! Below are a few sample entries from the book.
Brudzinski, Wieslaw (Poland, 1920- ) Brudzinski's first satirical broadsides appeared in 1936, in the Polish weekly Kultura. Since then, he has continued to publish his jocular jabs at politics, society, and human nature in the satirical magazine Szpilki ("Needles"), where he is also an editor.
The lesser evil usually lasts longer.
In life one has to go to the funerals of the people we like and the birthdays of those we don't.

Tutu, Desmond (South Africa, 1931- ) Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, was one of South Africa's most prominent opponents of apartheid. ... Tutu is also credited with coining the phrase "rainbow nation" to describe South Africa's ethnic and racial mix.
To be impartial is to have taken sides already with the status quo.
History, like beauty, depends largely on the beholder.
When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, "Let us pray." We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.
Under certain circumstances a wanted poster is a letter of recommendation.

Bunsch, Karol (Poland, 1898-1987) Bunsch is one of Poland's greatest aphorists. Outside of his own country, he is primarily known as the author of a series of historical novels about the Piast dynasty, the first kings of Poland. Piast, the legendary founder of the Polish state, was said to have lived in the ninth century. The rule of the last Piast monarch came to an end in 1370.
Honest conceit is better than false modesty.
The root of materialism is poverty; the well-fed remain idealists.
Borders are established so there is something to fight about.

Sato, Issai (Japan, 1772-1859) One of Japan's most important nineteenth century Confucian scholars, Issai was born in Tokyo and held a series of distinguished academic posts until his death.
There are always people who make big declarations. These are always people of little consequence.
Historical works all may communicate traces, but they do not communicate truth. One who reads history ought to take these traces and nudge out the truths concealed within.
Treat others like the spring breeze; guard yourself like the autumn frost.

Szasz, Thomas (United States, 1920- ) Szasz is best known for his book The Myth of Mental Illness, in which he argues that psychological disorders such as schizophrenia are not really illnesses at all but labels through which governments and the medical profession try to exercise social control.
Boredom is the feeling that everything is a waste of time; serenity, that nothing is.
When a person can no longer laugh at himself, it is time for others to laugh at him.
Two wrongs don't make a right, but they make a good excuse.


  1. A book made of aphorisms is like a dinner made up of hors d'oeuvres.
    Like an hors d'oeuvre, an aphorism is highly seasoned to achieve maximum effect.
    Like an hors d'oeuvre, an aphorism takes far longer to prepare than is apparent to the consumer.
    In fact, it is the ambition of every aphorism to give the impression of being made up on-the-spot, just as it is the ambition of a woman to appear beautiful without makeup.
    It is the tragic fate of the aphorism-maker to see his work gobbled up in a trace, perhaps chuckled over, and forgotten... Or if remembered, to be recast as the gobbler's own.
    To maintain his reputation, the aphorism-maker has no choice but to make another aphorism.

    1. So lovely ... and clever! thanks for savory melange of memorable apercus.